Brooklyn Foraging Tips
I recently moved to Brooklyn. Some of my new neighbors are old friends, but few of them previously resided in Manhattan for as many years as I did. It demands a peculiar set of adjustments, this change. One sees strange things out here, such as the sky. Bars with empty seats on a Saturday night. People who don't stop at crosswalks or clean up after their dogs. Songbirds.
A most enthusiastic booster of the Brooklyn-as-opposed-to-Manhattan lifestyle is my friend Felix, whom I hadn't seen regularly since our East Village days, back in the grunge era. He and I and our partners discuss food quite a bit. I'm learning that Brooklyn's urban culture developed in moderating response to Manhattan's poles of posturing and slumming, enforced frugality and glamorous excitement. There's pride in unpretentiousness here. I approach this correction with concern about turning middlebrow, but Felix, a college-educated carpenter and Mingus-influenced double-bassist, navigates Brooklyn terrain with inspiring originality. During my first settled weekend in the borough, I tried four of Felix's favorite eateries in the Park Slope/Prospects Heights region, and in the process awakened to his adventurous-yet-grounded sensibility. It's sort of all-brow.
Pathmark: They do indeed line up for the fried chicken at downtown Brooklyn's Pathmark, just like Felix said. The walkway in front of the supermarket, which anchors a new and expanding mall at Atlantic and Flatbush Aves., is littered with little bones.
You smell chicken as soon as you enter. The prepared-food counter is right near the door, but I mistakenly walked past it and about a quarter-mile of aisles as well, almost reaching the far wall before the scent of fried chicken finally faded and I knew to turn around.
(This Pathmark, by the way, is a bad place. Superstores work nicely in the suburbs, but serve to exaggerate everything crazy and frightening about true busyness and diversity. You don't want to spend time here any more than you want to hang out at the airport. The downtown Brooklyn Pathmark essentially is the international terminal at JFK, only with fried chicken.)
I'd arrived too late for the recommended side of collard greens. The star attraction, though, flaunted a hue to match its enchanting fragrance. Anything so golden needs no further adornment. I ate my chicken in front of the store, as is apparently the custom, and enjoyed the sight of a lovely winter sunset?red rays sinking behind Modell's and the future Target construction site, Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower all blazing yellow. Good to know they didn't stop staging those while I lived across the river.
The chicken, I must confess, is inexplicable. I recognized (probably) Perdue grade A, and a peppery batter coating that'd remained dry and light while it waited for me (probably) since lunchtime. But what Pathmark's cooks are using for oil, I cannot venture to guess. The mystery of this chicken's perfume is compounded by the juiciness of its white meat, which is extreme and unnatural. The grease is tasty, and exudes from the meat when bitten like water from a bath sponge. Herman Melville, who so adequately described whale oil, could probably do this unguentary chicken justice. He was a Manhattanite, however.
625 Atlantic Ave. (Fort Greene Pl.), Brooklyn, 718-399-6161.
Natural Blend: Natural Blend is the Prospect Heights West Indian takeout place with the big green-and-yellow awning. It clearly says "Natural Blend" on it, but the awning's colors must eclipse its content because Felix, a literate fellow, didn't know the name. This is another place he eats poultry, though here the pieces are smaller, dryer, unfried. Natural Blend is Felix's spot for jerk chicken, which can be sampled with rice and peas (aka rice and beans) and plantains for as little as $4.50.
I wrote a bit last year about the challenge of Jamaican-food connoisseurship. A critical perspective tends to occlude the foundational paradox of the cuisine, which is that it's very complex and very homey at the same time. My current belief is that it's best to simply find a purveyor of West Indian food that you like, then settle down and grow to love it. You can't worry too much about if they're eating better roti on the next island, or you'll miss the point.
Felix has found himself an admirable provider. Natural Blend's jerk chicken gradually establishes a cruising altitude of smoky barbecue burn. I like that the chef doesn't try to hit you over the head with his seasoning, because that tactic usually results in spicy skin, bland meat. Natural Blend's jerk flavor was a thoroughly suffused compound of hot peppers, nutmeg and cinnamon, garlic, ginger and herbs. I'd guess that real Scotch bonnets and allspice wood weren't deployed, but maybe they were. Like I said, it's excellent jerk chicken and I don't want to be a stickler. Still, there are at least a half-dozen more local West Indian restaurants I have to try before putting down stakes.
685 Washington Ave. (betw. Prospect Pl. & St. Marks Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-636-0755.
Rose Water: I was a little full from so much takeout chicken when I visited Park Slope's Rose Water, Felix's pick for a sit-down, upscale meal. (Brooklyn food snobs please note: Felix's top choice was the superior Convivium Osteria, but I'd eaten there already. And while I have your attention, allow me to suggest that you check out Felix's band, the Leisure Kings, which specializes in soulful, non-gussied-up versions of jazz standards, this Saturday, Feb. 23, 10 p.m., at Freddy's Backroom, 485 Dean St. at 6th Ave., Brooklyn, 718-622-7035 or www.freddysbackroom.com. No cover.)
The partners behind Rose Water met at Savoy, where I've never had anything but a stellar, surprise-packed meal, and one of them previously cooked at the well-reputed Williamsburg Moroccan restaurant Oznot's Dish. Our party of four was seated immediately in the spare, wood-and-brick dining room, and within minutes started in on a mezze plate. It featured the most satisfying garlic hummus I've ever had besides homemade, rich babaganoush and pureed carrots spiced with cumin. The plate comes in two sizes ($6 or $8.50), both with pita bread that's baked in-house. Another notable appetizer was the fattoush of P.E.I. mussels with watercress, pita and olives ($6). The mussels are out-of-shell, tossed with the greens, bread bits and strong olives to make a salad of distinction.
Fattoush is a Syrian/Lebanese bread salad that traditionally includes parsley, mint and sumac, not shellfish. Rose Water's version set the tone for the entrees that followed, which also mixed Middle Eastern or African flavor techniques with locally popular elements. Sauteed fennel gnocchi with squash, chard and mint brown butter ($13.50) was my choice, and I very much regretted being not hungry enough for meat, because the dish was our table's dud. It wasn't horrible, but neither was it much more than a sop to Park Slope's vegans. The breaded porkchop with star anise apple chutney and broccoli rabe ($18.50) did a much better job of reconciling licorice flavor to a hearty Western dish.
Black sea bass ($17.50) came with its own audacious array of vegetables and sides, but the fish itself stole the show. Mouthwateringly fresh and seared at some heroic temperature, it will spoil many a pedestrian sea-bass experience in the future. Rose Water may not be the outerborough Savoy, but this one flavor (plus a persimmon cake dessert makes two) is enough to guarantee my return.
787 Union St. (6th Ave.), Brooklyn, 718-783-3800.
Chip Shop: English cooks are currently in the process of fleeing their traditional cuisine. To extend the metaphor, they are running away in abject terror from what they, if born middle class in the 70s or earlier, grew up eating. You're more likely to find a London pub serving Thai food than one specializing in dishes like mushy peas, treacle pudding and haddock and chips, which, even viewed objectively, can be pretty scary. These are foods that can literally stop your heart from beating.
Not far from Rose Water, a group of Brits who felt the opposite of ashamed about their erstwhile everyday eats, wisely realizing that such a high-fat horrorshow is fun and amusing if it's not your looming heritage, opened Chip Shop. Soon they'll expand to other locations (you can find out about investing at www.chipshopnyc.com). The restaurant's logo is in the ransom-note font, like the Sex Pistols'. The menu page of the website has a Photoshopped image of Prince Harry with a joint and a beer. The razor edge of London a generation ago now tickles Park Slope's middlebrow fancy like an edible, English version of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
The word on the place is that the fish and chips are the real deal. They are, but not quite completely. On the bright side: corrected are the flatness, frozenness and batter-thinness or -sogginess that plague American fried fish. Chip Shop uses thick, tapering hunks of cod, and their batter is perfect. The fries likewise achieve optimal consistency?more crispy-on-the-outside-mushy-on-the-inside than Manhattan's Pomme Frites'. Though, sadly, they're not quite as tasty. And the lack of a haddock option (always offered in the UK for an extra pound) is disappointing.
Chip Shop's chip butty is as serviceable a french-fry sandwich as you're going to find on this continent. Between white bread slices big and squishy enough to absorb the quantity of butter and malt vinegar necessary to achieve liquidation in the mouth, leaving a coating of salty fat, the chips transcend potato mundanity. My green-card-carrying companion Jane helped me understand how that works. At dessert (can't have starch, grease and sodium without a finale of sugar, can we?) she harshly criticized Chip Shop's treacle pudding as "insufficiently treacly" and lacking proper density, yet she "mmmmm"d her way through it. I, for one, thought it was kind of cool that the long-steamed batter came out not unlike cake, with the treacle that'd sunk to the bottom becoming an icing-like top layer when the pudding was turned onto its plate.
Nostalgia and bandwagon-ism remain traps, we agreed, but it seems a neat trick to sidestep naysaying for the sake of honest, informed and openhearted affirmations. I'll return to Chip Shop, too.
383 5th Ave. (6th St.), Brooklyn, 718-832-7701.
L'Epicerie du Quartier: Here's one from me, especially for Felix. There's a little French market in Fort Greene, recently opened by the same team behind that neighborhood's second great bistro, A Table. L'Epicerie du Quartier is going to move a lot of Jacques Torres chocolate, baguettes and organic vegetables. The prepared-foods counter will remain a hassle on weekends until the store gets its act together service-wise (though L'Epicerie at times proves rather friendly for a French place), but if you can spend a minute, have them make you a duck rillette sandwich. Rillette is sort of the French alternative to cold cuts, with meats preserved in a sealant layer of their own fat. The cold duck meat appears minced, then melts on the tongue like a chip butty, tasting herb-stuffed and roasted. On French bread it makes for a lush and savory lunch. Goes perfect with a Sunday stroll amid the tall trees and brownstones.
270 Vanderbilt Ave. (betw. DeKalb & Lafayette Aves.), 718-636-0360; closed Mondays.
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